“The Turua forest between the lower Waihou and Piako rivers, in which kahikatea was the dominant tree, was almost entirely felled between 1865 and 1900. This stand of kahikatea in the Turua domain is one of the few which remain.”
Photography has been seen as enabling a realm beyond natural vision, revealing visions previously unavailable to the human eye. Photographer Kate van der Drift similarly pictures what Walter Benjamin referred to as the “optical unconscious.” She does not snap to serve the heady aesthetics consumed by so many fans of trendy consumable landscape photography sold by the metre. Rather, these are careful depictions, truly shots of pure horror, of ghosts, of vanishing locations – stunning documents punching a forebodingly eerie warning. Her lens is haunted.
Van der Drift uses photography as a starting point for apparition. Given our ever-increasing overexposure to photographic images (Instagram, Snapchat, Periscope, YouTube, Facebook, etc) it could be argued we notice photography more. And less. Once photography was seen as embodying modernity and stillness. It is now more often characterised by its hustle and rapidity; so starkly that a myriad of image types have become globally accessible and hyper-real, at light-speed.
Roland Barthes proposed that the frozen temporality of a photograph has the effect of suggesting a past moment and that it’s therefore our belief in its reality which makes that moment permanently present. Van der Drift’s photographs create a powerful nostalgia, evoking the past within the present, but also cautioning the viewer of a potential future. Barthes further argued that the photograph acts as a “transparent envelope,” which we look through in order to engage with its content.
We are drawn to van der Drift’s images because of their physical properties, but also because of the potency she imbues into the subject. This unassuming quality allows van der Drift’s practice to adopt new forms and to insert itself into a wide variety of contexts. The invisibility of photography does not mark the end of the medium. Van der Drift’s work instead evidences that the invisibility of photography is its very power.
The dominance this form of perception engenders is also the context for Walter Benjamin’s discussion of ‘aura.’ What is significant about her images in this regard is the way in which their forms of interaction with the contemporary foreclose earlier (more auratic) modalities of experience. Van der Drift’s images favour closeness over distance. The sites she selects are auratic; her likenesses vibrational. This penetrates through and around her works: we sense colonists triggering havoc and fingerprinting an ignorantly destructive ascendancy over sacred nature – taonga tuku iho. This smarts against Māori culture in which the intergenerational protection of highly valued taonga, including whenua (land) is passed on from one generation to the next, in a caring and respectful manner.
In Aotearoa, mauri is the life force derived from whakapapa. It is the essential essence sustaining all forms of life and provides life and energy to all living and non-living things. Consider that if all plants, animals, water and soil possess mauri, then damage or contamination to the environment is therefore damage to, or loss of, mauri.
Van der Drift alerts us to the insult migrant industrialisation is rapidly tossing at notions of kaitiakitanga (the stewardship or guardianship of the environment) and shows us the whenua being stripped and shredded into a disjointed carnage. Of course, digital practices mean that photography itself has become more disembodied, often exchanged from screen to screen without ever taking physical form. Yet, certain photographs are still noticed, embodied, displayed and examined as if they were personified - the still and printed image continues to be influential within contemporary art.
However, the apparently neutral documentation of spaces and places can be deceptive. Because van der Drift’s practice involves photographing seemingly overlooked environments, she takes dozens of digital photographs of the same location from different angles – yellowed paddocks, metal drains, water streaming across barren broken terrain – making drawings and studies of place. Settling on an angle, a compelling hook by which to slip the message onto the walls that matter, she then creates a large format film image. Finally, she plays with the pictorial – she fogs and manipulates these pictures until she succeeds in making her photographs read with an unequivocal peculiarity.
Van der Drift’s photographs are in fact elaborate handmade creations, painterly digitised workings. Her work brings together two opposing tendencies in the use of photographs by contemporary artists: the documentation of the everyday, and the creation of elaborate scenarios for the camera. With the somatosensation of a watercolour artist, van der Drift consistently channels poetic visuality to raise urgent questions. “I observed that a photograph can be the object of three practices (or of three emotions, or of three intentions): to do, to undergo, to look. The Operator is the Photographer. The Spectator is ourselves, all of us who glance through collections of photographs - in magazines and newspapers, in books, albums, archives ... And the person or thing photographed is the target, the referent, a kind of little simulacrum, any eidolon emitted by the object, which I should like to call the Spectrum of the Photograph, because this word retains, through its root, a relation to ‘spectacle’ and adds to it that rather terrible thing which is there in every photograph: the return of the dead.”
As a plant is ripped from the ground it releases the most exquisite scent: freshly plucked handfuls of mint, grass slashed with a blade, ahh. (Here, the plant is screeching an urgent olfactory distress signal to its nearest and dearest.) The fragrance we gleefully inhale is an indication of the utmost panic.
Essay by Maria Walls
BORN: 1985, Hamilton
EDUCATION: Post Graduate Diploma in Fine Arts, Elam school of Fine Arts University of Auckland, 2015, Bachelor of Fine Arts, Otago Polytechnic 2010
AWARDS: Winner of the Uxbridge Malcolm Smith Gallery Art and Ecology Award (2020), University of Auckland Research Masters Scholarship (2019), Stoneleigh Wines artist grant best New Zealand artist showing at 2018 Melbourne Art Fair, (2018) Best Installation, OUSA Art Week (2010); Project Drawing Award, Otago Polytechnic (2009)
PUBLIC EXHIBITIONS: And (&) per se and, Auckland (2016); By Then, George Fraser Gallery, Auckland (2015); New Perspectives, 4 Cross Street Gallery, Auckland (2015); A Place Between, Casbah Gallery, Hamilton (2015); From Now On (No Garden of Eden),Wallace Gallery, Morrinsville (2013); Push To Talk (with collective We Are Optimistic), One Day Wonder Series, Pearce Gallery, Auckland (2013); Push To Talk (with collective We Are Optimistic), Qubit - A Weekend of Contemporary Performance Art, The Anteroom, Dunedin (2011); Patriarchy Free Zone Imagination Station (with collective We Are Optimistic), Otago University Art Week (2010); Domestic Terror, Centre of Contemporary Art, Christchurch (2010); Let’s Roar Loudly! Symposium, Pioneering Women’s Memorial Hall, Dunedin (2010)
SELECTED BIBLIOGRAPHY: McAvoy, Emil ‘As Above So Below Recent Photographs by Anne Noble and Kate van der Drift’ by Emil McAvoy, Art New Zealand Magazine, Autumn 2020; ‘Kate van der Drift reviewed - July 2018’ by Nina Seja, PhotoForum and D-Photo Magazine Spring 2018; ‘More Real Than The Real Thing’ by Charlotte Jansen, Elephant Magazine, Fall 2016; ‘A Place in Time’ by Mareea Vegas, D-Photo Magazine, Sep 2016; ‘Eventual Efflorescence – Kate van der Drift’ by M, Raven About Art, Jun 2016; ‘van der Drift Photos’ by Hana Aoake, Eye Contact, Jun 2015, ‘A subtle sense of identity’ by Terry McNamara, The New Zealand Herald, Jun 2015; ‘Kate van der Drift: Waterlogged’ by Rebekah White, Pro Photographer, Jun/Jul 2015, p 7; ‘Art Seen’ by James Dignan, Otago Daily Times, Dec 2013; ‘Art Seen’ by Julie Jopp, Otago Daily Times, Dec 2012; Lonie, Bridie and Sandra Muller, Qubit: a weekend of contemporary performance art, Port Chalmers: Anteroom Publishing, 2011; ‘Thought Provoking Art. Another World Is Possible’ by Bell Murphy, Marrow Magazine, Oct 2010; ‘Domestic Terror’, coca.org.nz, 2010; ‘SITE in Dunedin’ by Jodie Dalgleish, Eye Contact, Nov 2009